Robert Capa’s “falling soldier” in the news again

April 1, 2010

“For years, doubts have persisted over the authenticity of the iconic Robert Capa photo “Falling Soldier,” taken during what conflict? A: Spanish Civil War, B: Korean War, C: Cuban Revolution, D: World War I.”

Millions of Americans received a history lesson last night when this question was asked of a contestant on the US version of “Who wants to be a millionaire?”

It was the $25,000 question and the contestant, waitress Kelly Norton, bombed. According to a news report on the Philedelphia Inquirer‘s website, Norton asked the studio audience and used a double-dip lifeline, first guessing D and then B.

Bad luck Kelly, you should have checked out Ethical Martini before going on air. I could have helped you out and, who knows, we might have had a shot at the big time.

Why am I posting about this?

Good question.

The simple answer is that EM has gone feral today with hundreds of hits on my various posts about Robert Capa’s famous image. I always like to know where spikes in my traffic are coming from and after an hour or so of searching I finally saw the piece. I’m assuming that folk who watched WWTBAM? are this morning (US time) googling like mad to catch up on the Spanish Civil War.

New flash dudes, it was over 75 years ago.

Is it interesting that she asked the audience and still couldn’t pick the right answer. Don’t the learn anything about the Spanish Civil War in American high schools? I know, I know, silly question.

I’m firmly of the view that the iconic “falling soldier” was staged by Capa. Most probably it was done as a crude propaganda stunt as Capa was politically aligned with the Spanish republicans and against the Fascist forces of General Franco.

I also think it’s a quiet little joke that Capa’s photo was used on a “Dancing with the stars-themed” game show. The line between reality and reality television is already blurred for so many people that the whole absurdist idea of theming a game show around another stupid celebrity overloaded game show seems like common sense.

How cruel to make a waitress from Valley Forge answer a question about a controversy in the arcane realm of photojournalism.

Norton walked way with an easy five-grand and I guess that’s a lot of tequila shots in most Philly bars.

Falling man - reality? Not so much

1st EM post on Capa

Does the evidence stack up?

An interesting view of Capa’s falling soldier

Capa’s Mexican suitcase[s]

“Staged” Yeah, we know

Picking on Capa

Picking on Robert Capa – why now George?

November 17, 2009

Conservative US columnist George  F Will is syndicated from the Washington Post to lots of other newspapers and online portals. In a column this week George (belatedly) stumbles upon the news that a Spanish historian has demonstrated that Robert Capa’s famous “falling man”, or “falling soldier” or “death of a Republican” photograph from the Spanish Civil War is probably fake.

of course, news from nowhere (ie: anywhere outside the US) does tend to circulate slowly in the American media, but I can’t believe that George F Will was really just scratching around for a space filler when he happened on the Capa story and decided it would be a good shovel for bashing “leftists” over the head.

His audience certainly caught the dog-whistle implications over at the Houston Chronicle – obviously not a bastion of liberal journalistic values. I would think that a similar audience is probably regularly reading Mr Will’s missives at RealClearPolitics too. where it appeared under the astonishingly original headline A picture can lie. I’m not sure about the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, no comments have been posted there yet.

Anyway, the DTH does provide a link to George’s email, so I’ve sent him a note asking where he got the inspiration from to write this column, how much he gets paid for recycling this stuff and if he actually knows the name of the “Spanish professor” who has worked so hard to debunk the Capa “falling soldier” myth.

But, perhaps he doesn’t care, because the purpose of the column is really for Mr Will to fume at the awful leftists and postmodernists who have been defending Capa’s reputation:

Capa was a man of the left and “Falling Soldier” helped to alarm the world about fascism rampant. But noble purposes do not validate misrepresentations. Richard Whelan, Capa’s biographer, calls it “trivializing” to insist on knowing whether this photo actually shows a soldier mortally wounded. Whelan says “the picture’s greatness actually lies in its symbolic implications, not in its literal accuracy.”

Rubbish. The picture’s greatness evaporates if its veracity is fictitious.

You see, this was a news story four months ago in July when professor Susperregui actually released the details of his study:

At any rate, that’s where it stood until this July, when the ICP gallery show of This Is War! opened in Spain. With that came articles in Spanish newspapers and then British newspapers (summarized on the Web in the States here and on the BBC Web site here), revealing research by José Manuel Susperregui showing the picture was not taken at Cerro Muriano but Espejo, even farther from the front than previously thought. “Capa photographed his soldier at a location where there was no fighting,” the Spanish paper El Periodico said. It “demonstrates that the death was not real.”

Bruce Young, National Press Photographer’s Association

I had seen the Capa/Taro exhibition, This Is War! in London and basically outlined the exact same arguments in a blogpost  dated 1st November. So Mr Will is a year late on this one. The story was in the New York Times on 17 August this year, and you can read it in The cave of  Montesinos.

Iconic “falling soldier” staged – Yeah we know

July 19, 2009
The Capa "falling soldier" image - real or not?

The Capa "falling soldier" image - real or not?

Well, the controversy around Robert Capa’s “falling soldier” image from the Spanish civil war is not settled yet. A Spanish newspaper is now saying that the image was staged. AFP is now running the story globally.

A similar piece appeared in The Guardian a few weeks ago, but didn’t generate the same interest.

Regular readers of Ethical Martini will be aware that I have long been arguing that the photograph was staged. So I’m not really surprised that this is running again.

I said recently that we would have to wait to see what fresh evidence might emerge from the Mexican suitcase before it can be finally resolved.

In May this year the New York International Center for Photography, which houses the Capa archives, reported it could not find the negative for this image in the  Mexican suitcase which did contain many Spanish civil war photographs.

One interesting note from the AFP story:

El Periodico said it based its study on an exhibition–launched in New York in 2007 and now in Barcelona –of 150 Capa photos taken in conflicts during the 1930s and 1940s.

I saw this exhibition at the Barbican Centre  in London last year and I  wrote extensively on the series that includes “falling man” #1 and “falling man” #2.

I first wrote about the Capa image  in 2007. I’ve always had doubts.

En Francais, Andre Gunthert: “Capa vs Google Earth”

En Espanol, La mítica fotografía del miliciano de Capa puede ser falsa

For photojournalism students, if you want to see a reasonably interesting discussion about the ethics of the image, click on over to A Photo Editor.

More police misconduct – Met threat to press photographers

April 25, 2009

Back in March, the UK Guardian published video footage showing how the police were surveilling protestors and journalists at an environment protest. Well, after apologising for their actions, which included following journos into a McDonalds and threatening them, the Metropolitan police were at it again during the recent G20 protests in London.

A new video has surfaced showing the cops threatening to arrest news photographers covering the protest. The cops apologised again, but they obviously don’t mean it. The UK seems to be moving inexorably in the direction of a police state  like Orwell’s Airstrip One in 1984.

This comes on top of loads of evidence that the cops were heavy-handed in their treatment of the largely peaceful protests and the death of Ian Tomlinson, a guy who had nothing to do with the G20 protest, but was just walking past the cops. He was pushed to the ground, he died a few hours later.

[Tx Colleen]

BTW: While checking out stuff for this post I came across a good UK blog that used to be called “Airstrip One”, but is now known as Did you steal my country.  The guys behind DYSMC describe themselves as conservative(ish) libertarians, but they write well on interesting and useful topics. I also came across this bitter post Life on Airstrip One at OpenDemocracy.

Robert Capa’s Mexican suitcase

February 10, 2009


Update 19 July 2009: Fresh argument erupts

When I was in London last year I heard that a suitcase of missing Robert Capa negatives had been found, but I couldn’t get any confirmation. Now it’s been announced that there is indeed a suitcase, or at least three cardboard cartons of negatives and it’s been handed over the the Capa archives at the International Center of Photography in New York.

The boxes contained rolls of negatives taken by Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour (known as Chim).

In a media release the Center announced that the 3500 negatives are in good shape considering they’re over 70 years old and that they will be conserved for public display and research.

“We are thrilled about the return of what has become known as ‘The Mexican Suitcase,’” said ICP Director Willis E. Hartshorn. “These small cardboard boxes containing the negatives will give us critical information about the working process of three extraordinary wartime photographers. We are hoping for new discoveries, and the ability to provide access and new scholarship to the field. Public access to the images through publications, exhibitions, and online viewing is another key objective.” [ICoP 30 Jan 09]

If the rolls of negatives contain the sequence in which the famous “falling soldier” image appears it may help to clear up one of the most confounding puzzles in 20th Century photojournalism. Was the photograph staged, or was it, as Capa always claimed, a lucky shot at the exact moment a sniper’s bullet felled the Republican soldier?

Personally, I have been arguing for sometime on EM that the image was staged, perhaps as a result of Capa’s loyalty to the Spanish republican cause. Read the rest of this entry »

An interesting view of Capa’s falling man

January 21, 2009

A Chinese-speaking  blogger and photophile , Alex Ng, has linked to my post about the famous Robert Capa photographs of the falling Republican soldier from 1936/37.

I’ve raised the issue of the veracity of the Spanish Civil War image which purports to show a Republican soldier, identified as Federico Borrell Garcia,  at the moment he is hit by a fascist bullet.

I think there are some unresolved issues here, including the ethics of war reporting.

Alex’s original post is in Chinese and the translation machines just make garble of what is no doubt excellent Chinese prose. So, I won’t insult anyone with a machine translation. Suffice to post this interesting photoshop image, which you can argue over.

The post in Chinese is here: Monologue on Photography.  If any one cares to provide a readable translation, I’d be happy to post it.

I’m not sure that this proves anything. As I have written recently, particularly about the Barbican exhibition which finishes this week, the two falling soldier images seem to be of different men – variations in uniform, particularly the leather webbing, seem to suggest that they are not the same person.

A photoshopped composite of two falling soldiers

A photoshopped composite of two falling soldiers

Robert Capa’s Falling soldier – does the evidence stack up?

November 1, 2008
Sonw in London - October 2008

Update 19 July 2009: Fresh argument erupts

[Traveller’s tip: Don’t miss: This is war! at the Barbican till 25 January 2009]

I was fortunate enough to enjoy a ‘private viewing’ of the Robert Capa and Gerda Taro exhibition at the Barbican this week. Helen and I got doused by a storm walking from Moorgate, but once we were inside, the magic of the Barbican Centre took over. We spent the next 90 minutes immersed in some great war reportage and an installation of contemporary photojournalistic and new media commentaries on Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the way home I was caught in that wonderful (for an expat of 40 years) October snow. It was bitterly cold, but the chance to take this photo made it all worthwhile. The white blobs in the foreground are snowflakes.

Robert Capa and Gerda Taro were an amazing couple as well as great photographers. This retrospective provides hundreds of images showing how they worked together or alone and using a variety of cameras and techniques.

Many of the images in this collection are clearly staged and posed: including many famous images by both Capa and Taro from the Spanish civil war.

They first went to Spain in 1936 and their sympathies were with the Republicans (also known as Loyalists) who were defending their newly established (and left-leaning) government from the Fascist militias led by General Franco.

I don’t doubt Taro and Capa’s political allegiance to the Republicans. That was always the right side of the barricades and many fine socialists, intellectuals, poet, anarchists, workers, women and children died defending and extending working class political rights against the rising tide of European fascism.

But did this ideological sympathy for revolution in Spain create ethical problems for either Capa or Taro? One famous series of images by Robert Capa sheds some interesting light on this debate.

Known universally as ‘the falling soldier’, one iconic image is at the centre of a longstanding question hanging over Robert Capa’s reputation as one of the finest photojournalists of the 20th Century.

Read the rest of this entry »

Something to look forward to – Robert Capa photographs

October 22, 2008

Next week, my cousin Helen is taking me to see the exhibition of Robert Capa and Gerda Taro photographs that recently opened at the Barbican.

Capa and Taro are two important figures in 20th century war journalism. Taro was German and I must admit I know nothing about her beyond what I’ve read on the Barbican website. I’m keen to see some of her work and learn more about her. [Barbican notice about This is War!]

However, Robert Capa is much more well known. Unfortunately his fame comes from a controversial image he shot during the Spanish civil war. Known universally as the ‘falling soldier’, the image captures a moment of death on the frontline, but there has been doubt around the provenance of this image for 50 years.

My summary of this debate continues to be one of the most clicked on posts on Ethical Martini.

Just this week I came across another take on the image on a site I check out now again again called ‘Screw Asylum’. No, it’s not that sort of site. Ah, the pleasures of mucking about with Photoshop.

Anyway, the Barbican exhibition also contains some recently available documents from the Cornell Capa (Robert’s brother) archive that claim to prove that the falling soldier image is real.

I’ll let you know when I’ve seen it; in the meantime enjoy ‘death of an insane screw‘.

Robert Capa – was that photograph really real?

September 7, 2007

For many years I’ve been talking to my students about the ethical dilemmas associated with photojournalism. One of the key case studies that we discuss is the image of a Spanish soldier at the point of death that Magnum agency photographer Robert Capa took in 1936.
In the shot the Loyalist soldier appears to be falling back after being hit by a sniper’s bullet.

For years there’s been controversy around this image. Some historians and journalists, notably Philip Knightley, have argued that this is a faked image. Posed by the soldier for Capa’s camera.

In a review of a biography of Capa (Blood and Champagne by Alex Kershaw), Knightley is scathing in his attack on the man, and the famous image.

Let’s get the bad stuff over first. Robert Capa was a liar, a compulsive gambler, a depressive, a heavy drinker, and a womaniser (especially with prostitutes). He used people, broke promises and when he was accused of being a communist and the U.S. State Department kept his passport, he “named names”, to get it back.

At the urging of the appalling Henry Luce, the founder of Life and producer of the March of Time newsreel series, he staged Republican attacks on Fascist positions during the Spanish Civil War and filmed them, noting that they looked “more real” than if they had actually taken place. And, I maintain, he faked the most famous war photograph of all time, the Spanish soldier at the moment of death.

But the Wikipedia entry and other bloggers have suggested that it’s real. The entry is quite clear on the story, but doesn’t mention Knightley’s criticism:

From 1936 to 1939, he was in Spain, photographing the horrors the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, he became known across the globe for a photo he took on the Cordoba Front of a Loyalist Militiaman who had just been shot and was in the act of falling to his death. Because of his proximity to the victim and the timing of the capture, there was a long controversy about the authenticity of this photograph. Historians eventually succeeded in identifying the dead soldier as Federico Borrell García, from Alcoi (Valencia) and proved it authentic. [1] This is one of the best-known pictures of the Spanish civil war.

This position receives some support, for example this comment from a discussion thread at

The photo has been proved to be in no way “a set up” by the photographer, despite a claim by someone who wasn’t anywhere near the place where it happened.

In a response this this, another post suggested:

I never said the photograph was a hoax. Robert Capa had asked the soldier to perform for a photograph(duck and roll I believe) when he was shot and killed(in reality)

In amongst all the discussion of cameras, lenses and focal lengths, there’s some support for Capa on the site. Here’s another post on a different thread that seems to support the Wikipedia entry:

Knightley claims to have proved in 1974, Capa Falling Loyalist Solider photo was faked. Well, a few years ago, the soldier was positively identified by records and family members. Knightley still refuses to accept this. A long time ago, I read his evalution and found it lacking. In addition, I believe, he did not have access to the Capa archives and never saw the original contact sheet(s) from the event. The original negative has been lost. The very best source of ACCURATE Robert Capa facts, is the Richard Whelan biography, first published in 1985.

There is a piece by Richard Whelan online that backs this story and provides more detail. This extract talks about the controversy and maintains that the image is real. However, it says here that the soldier was a Republican fighter. I thought the Loyalists were Francos’ fascists. I’ve always thought the image was of a Republican and given Capa’s political leanings I would imagine he would have been with Republican units, not Franco’s.

After photographing in Barcelona, Capa and Taro went to the stalemated Aragón front, where they visited the militia of the Trotskyite POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) that George Orwell would serve with that winter. Capa and Taro then moved south toward Andalucía. Republican forces had begun an offensive to recover Córdoba, and the Madrid government reported new advances daily, even emptily boasting that its troops had entered the city. For photographers eager to cover Republican victories, the Córdoba front was a compelling destination.

There, just outside the tiny village of Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936, a 22-year-old Capa made one of his most famous images, perhaps the greatest of all war photographs—that of a Republican militiaman who has just been shot and is collapsing into death.

The internal evidence of the series of photographs to which that picture belongs suggests that Capa ran down a barren hillside with the vanguard of a Republican attack, and, as they came into range of an enemy emplacement, he threw himself down and hugged the ground (as we can see from the camera angle); from there he photographed several men as they were shot in succession. “Falling Soldier” received its first publication soon afterward in the September 23, 1936, issue of Vu.

In 1975, a controversy began over the authenticity of Capa’s great photograph when O’Dowd Gallagher, an elderly British journalist of failing memory, charged that the photograph was staged. The claim was published in Phillip Knightley’s book The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker.

In a world always eager to believe the worst, Gallagher’s allegations spread rapidly. Refuting evidence was largely ignored. In September 1996, however, the controversy was definitively settled in Capa’s favor by the discovery of the identity of the man in the photograph—Federico Borrell García, whose death at Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936, is recorded in the Spanish government’s archives and whose identity in the photograph was confirmed by his younger brother, Everisto.

Through circumstantial evidence, which I pieced together while working on my biography of Capa, we know for certain that Capa and Taro were in Cerro Muriano on that day. Indeed, on the vintage prints preserved in the files of Capa’s estate with their original chronological numbering, the numbers on the sequence of pictures to which the “Falling Soldier” belongs immediately precede those of a Cerro Muriano refugee series. The numbering on the vintage prints clearly suggested that Capa made his “Falling Soldier” picture at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. Capa repeatedly confirmed during his lifetime that he had made his photograph on the Córdoba front.

There is another, more detailed account of this story from Richard Whelan at PBS, written in 2002. This image purports to show the relative positions of Borell Garcia and Capa, taken from a trench on the front lines.
Here’s Whelan’s final thoughts on the subject, from the PBS American Masters documentary on Capa:

The arrow indicates [in the photo above] where Federico Borrell García was standing when he was shot; the X indicates where Capa was hugging the side of the gully.

There can be no further doubt that The Falling Soldier is a photograph of Federico Borrell García at the moment of his death during the battle at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. May the slanderous controversy that has plagued Robert Capa’s reputation for more than twenty-five years now, at last, come to an end with a verdict decisively in favor of Capa’s integrity. It is time to let both Capa and Borrell rest in peace, and to acclaim The Falling Soldier once again as an unquestioned masterpiece of photojournalism and as perhaps the greatest war photograph ever made.

Whelan provides more photographic evidence in this piece, published in 2003.

I haven’t been able to find any response to this from Phillip Knightley. If you know of one, perhaps you could let me know.